Messianic Judaism’s new interfaith push in Beverly Hills

Since it opened in 2011, the Interfaith Center of Beverly Hills has been sitting mostly empty.

On the one hand, it occupies a piece of prime real estate on the ground floor of a modern office building on a busy stretch of South Beverly Drive. Actors and agents take meetings at Urth Caffé, less than one block away. Just across the street, machers meet for coffee at Larry King’s Original Brooklyn Water Bagel Co. Although it’s hard to understand exactly what the stark, black letters above the Interfaith Center’s entrance mean, it’s just as hard to miss them.

Yet except for a few classes that take place during the week and a Christian prayer group that sublets the space for Sunday morning services, so few people use the spare storefront at the corner of Gregory Way and South Beverly Drive that the owner of the cafe across the street confessed she hadn’t ever seen anyone go in or out.

“I’d really like to know what goes on there,” said Anahit Hagopian, who owns the BeverLiz Café.

But for one older man who wandered in on a recent Tuesday afternoon — his full beard and long, curled sidelocks looking especially white against the black flat-topped, wide-brimmed hat on his head and his ankle-length black coat — there was little question about what he thought the space’s function was.

“I see a shul, mit seforim …” a synagogue, with scholarly books, he said, speaking a mix of English and Yiddish that would be instantly understandable to any Orthodox yeshiva student.

Despite the mezuzah on its doorframe and the bookshelves lining the back wall, the Interfaith Center isn’t a house of Jewish prayer. It’s the site of a new attempt by Messianic Jews to draw in the mainstream Jewish community.

“It’s not a synagogue,” Stuart Dauermann, a leader in the Messianic Jewish movement, told the old man, who left moments later, a cold can of cola in his hand. “It’s a study center — but not quite a beit midrash either.”

“Not quite this, but also not that,” is a description that might equally apply to Messianic Jews themselves. Some Jewish followers of Jesus — or “Yeshua,” as they call him, using the Christian messiah’s Hebrew name — have no problem calling themselves Christians; others reject that label, and all are, quite simply, not welcome in the mainstream Jewish world.

“Messianic Jewish congregations are not Jewish,” Rabbi Mark Diamond, executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, said. “And speaking of Jesus as ‘Yeshua’ is often an attempt to hide what a group truly believes in. They have every right to practice what they like, but call it what it is.”

Dauermann — who intersperses his speech with Hebrew and Yiddish words, wears tzitzit (the religiously mandated fringed garment) and says he “feels naked” when studying without his kippah — resists being classified as Christian and describes himself as an observant Jew.

In an interview with The Journal, Dauermann said the mission of the Interfaith Center is to promote “increased understanding between Jews and Christians.”

“We may not have agreement, but we can make progress,” Dauermann, the center’s chief visionary officer, said. Asked what would constitute “progress,” he answered vaguely, pointing to the center’s two-word mission statement, “Rethink religion.”

Dauermann, 67, has been rethinking religion for most of his life. Born into a Conservative Jewish family in Brooklyn, he turned to Jesus when he was 19. A noted composer of Messianic Jewish music, Dauermann has also become a leader within the Messianic Jewish community, which counts about 400 congregations and fellowships in the United States that range in size from a few dozen to a few hundred people.

In 2011, Dauermann stepped down from his post as rabbi of one such congregation, Ahavat Zion Messianic Synagogue (AZS), also located on Beverly Drive, where he had served for 20 years.

Dauermann said he stepped down from that post because he realized he was getting older and wanted to be “more focused” on his life’s work, namely, “interpreting the Jewish world to the Christian world and, perhaps, interpreting the Christian world to the Jewish world.”

“I spend a lot of time talking to Christians about Jews,” Dauermann said, “improving Christians’ attitudes and behavior toward Jewish people, toward one of greater respect.”

The Interfaith Center isn’t looking to engage with Muslims, Hindus or anyone other than Christians and Jews. Dauermann sees himself as uniquely placed at the “intersection” of those two religions; he wrote the brochure for the Interfaith Center, which mines that vehicular metaphor rather intensively.

“How many conversations or relationships between Christians and Jews you know have ended up as collisions? How many intermarried families do you know that are having their share of relational fender-benders?” reads the text of “Interfaith Intersections,” which can be downloaded from the center’s Web site. “We’re familiar with the intersection, and we’re here to help.”

The identity of the center’s parent organization — the Messianic Jewish Theological Institute (MJTI) — isn’t hidden, per se, but neither is it trumpeted, only appearing in very small print on the brochure’s last panel. Similarly, while mainstream Jewish synagogues often plaster the names of their donors on walls, doors and all manner of other surfaces, the Interfaith Center offers no clear indication of its patronage, and Dauermann declined to identify any of the individuals who support the nonprofit MJTI.

“People like to preserve their privacy,” Dauermann said, “and I believe in derekh eretz [appropriate conduct].”

Nor would Dauermann specify exactly what leasing the space (which was most recently occupied by the high-end clothing retailer Lisa Kline) is costing the center each month. The most recent form filed with the IRS by the nonprofit MJTI covers a period before the opening of the Interfaith Center. That year, which ended on Sept. 30, 2010, MJTI ran a $1.17 million deficit, declaring $178,000 in revenues against $1.35 million in expenses. Most of that money — $773,000 — was devoted to employee salaries and benefits.

Dauermann did dispute the belief held by many neighbors that the center sits empty more often than it is in use, however.

“Daytime activities are not our forte, because most people are not free during the daytime,” he said, “and that’s part of the reason for that perception.”

The center could be more heavily utilized in the near future, Dauermann said, especially once Andrew Sparks, a messianic rabbi who was Dauermann’s partner in developing the Interfaith Center, returns to his duties as the person directly responsible for programming at the center. Sparks was seriously injured in June when he was hit by a car while crossing a street near Beverly Hills. Sparks was not available for comment; Dauermann said he is recovering. 

Although many often equate Messianic Jews with the Jews for Jesus organization, Joshua Brumbach, who took over for Dauermann as rabbi of AZS, said the two are different.

“Jews for Jesus is a Christian missionary organization; they exist to get Jews to convert to Christianity,” Brumbach said. “They attend churches, and they don’t believe that the mitzvot [Jewish religious commandments] are obligatory anymore.”

Messianic Jews, by contrast, want Jews “to be better Jews, instead of less so,” Brumbach said.

Brumbach, 35, said he was born into a Messianic Jewish family and that he studied in a yeshiva in Europe (which he declined to name). He represents a new generation of Messianic Jewish leaders, who are coming to the fore of a movement that has undergone some significant changes in recent years, according to Benzion Kravitz, an Orthodox rabbi who founded the Los Angeles-based counter-missionary organization Jews for Judaism in 1975.

“[It] has evolved from originally just being a ploy to Jews with the goal of getting people through it into the church,” Kravitz said, “to developing into its own movement separate from the church, which is what Stuart Dauermann wants.”

Brumbach would appear to share this goal. He said he is working to update services at AZS, making them “much more participatory, bringing in Carlebach-style melodies to make the davening [prayer] more engaging for young people.”

Kravitz said he tends to ignore Messianic synagogues unless he hears reports about them evangelizing to Jews, and that he hasn’t heard any such complaints about the Interfaith Center. But as a place that explicitly invites Jews to join in conversation with Messianic Jews, Kravitz said that the Interfaith Center is, in his view, “treif,” or unkosher.

“Their mishmash of Judaism and Christianity, in their minds, is the true way to practice Judaism,” he said, “which invalidates Reform, Conservative and Orthodox [Judaism], anything rabbinic.”

Dauermann, for his part, said he understands why many Jews oppose Messianic Jews like him.

“I encourage Jews to live as Jews,” Dauermann said, “and my preference is that they should live as Jews.”

But given that he believes that living as a Jew and believing in Jesus are not incompatible, doesn’t Dauermann want other Jews to accept Jesus as he has?

“I have great respect for the fact that people live their own lives and make their own decisions,” Dauermann said.